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Ups and Downs Across the World

Ups and Downs Across the World

"The Power of Faith: How Religion Impacts Our World" is the cover and title of the International Edition of a September 2006 Spiegel Special that just came my way. It's a stunning issue published in a nation stunned by evidences of vital religion almost everywhere in the world except Western Europe and, closest to home, Germany itself. Half the issue is given to "World Religions" and half to "Faith and Values" and "Christianity." Fair enough. (There's much on Islam in Europe, too.)

Let me quote the first caption of a two-page picture spread: "Amid wrenching change worldwide, people are returning to old-time religion. In the name of God, terrorists are happily maiming and killing; in the United States, the Christian Right has a stranglehold on government. On this increasingly God-fearing globe, only Western Europe looks like the last bastion of secularism – or are the faithful here too returning to the fold?" Let's not buy that line about anyone having a "stranglehold on government" in the United States, and deal with two themes: 1) how things are in the U.S., in Spiegel's eyes; and 2) how to answer the question about whether Europeans are returning to the fold – and why they left.

In the section on the United States, the editors unsurprisingly turn to the eye-catching. The headline "Karaoke for the Lord" sets readers up for pages treating megachurches – "feel-good temples providing entertainment," with ministers delivering "weekly jeremiads excoriating homosexuality, feminism and abortion." But take note of the observation that "particularly younger evangelists are now using the pulpit to preach about Africa and the environment." Two other notable lines: "Liberals are warning that the United States could become a theocracy"; and "even evangelical foot soldiers are edging away from the GOP camp." One can't complain about the newsworthiness of that. One can, however, wonder whether it fairly points to the real varieties of religious strength in America. But again, is this how "others see us"?

As for Germany and Europe seeing themselves? Give the editors credit – they do find and point to many kinds of religious vitality, "returning to the fold" against the backdrop of graphs that show most trends indicating plunges: loss of faith, loss of attendance, loss of interest. The follow-up question, which has a bearing on religion where it prospers, is: Why the collapse? Great Britain; Germany, theological powerhouse; France, "oldest daughter of the church"; Italy, the pope's house: down, down, down. Yes, historians point to long-term trends. Yet even post-war renewals caught notice a few decades ago. Then came more plunges.

The cultural climate has something to do with such trends. Thus comparisons between "free" former West Germany and long-bound East Germany reveal that a half-century of Communist repression was costly. "Do you believe in a god?" 73 percent say "yes" in West, while in East it's 30 percent. (But the overall total of 64 percent is up from 50 percent in 1992 – so some arrows point "up.") "Do you believe in a life after death?" Yes: West, 47 percent; East, 22 percent. No: 50 percent overall, with 44 percent in West and 74 percent in East. Perhaps of more interest is the question of the decline in West Germany, which has had much going for it.

Might freedom, affluence, abundance, choice, and materialism be prime factors in decline? Spiegel gives the religious, the non-religious, and the anti-religious in North America good reason to do some deep pondering. Can it happen here?


Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at Original Source: Sightings – A biweekly, electronic editorial published by the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.